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HDR Software

For this review of HDR  software I have chosen PS CS5, Photomatix Pro,  Nik HDR Efix Pro,  and HDR Darkroom. At this time these seem to be a reasonable sampling of top HDR software. These are also available as stand-alone software, or as PS CS5 plug-ins. My tests are neither all conclusive, nor perfect in their scope. Far from it. Suffice to say I was impressed with every single one. HDR has come a long ways in the last two-three years! All of these programs are available on a trial basis and I strongly suggest you give each a try.

The camera I used was the Nikon D7000, noted for its extreme dynamic range at base ISO (ISO 100, really 84, which I used). The lens was a Nikon 10-24mm super wide angle.  The sample photos were taken at 10mm, aperture priority of f5.6, and shutter speeds of 2, 8, and 32 seconds. A solid tripod and Kirk ballhead was used. Shutter delay of 2 seconds was done with each exposure. This was no easy task with 20-30 other photographers milling around in Antelope Canyon.

1- Photoshop PS CS5 was the slowest of the group. Although it is free with PS CS5 (and is greatly improved over PS CS4) I had some problems getting it to do what I wanted. It's strengths are de-ghosting and alignment - especially if shooting hand held bursts. It's weakness was tone mapping. I never really conquered this to my satisfaction.

2- The second candidate was Photomatix Pro (including the PS CS5 plug-in). I was very pleased with its speed as well as its natural rendition when properly tweaked. I was able to make my HDR images look very natural. A real plus for me. When saving the file I noticed it was an 8 bit file in aRGB color space. As I usually work in  Adobe RGB or Pro photo RGB this is a very nice feature. It's noise reduction feature worked nice, but I used it at its very lowest setting (and only for the underexposed file - an excellent option). Quite frankly, I was amazed how well it handled my three exposures. VERY little shadow noise! Excellent resolution. The product is extremely user friendly with many, many user options. I really liked this. The preview was in real-time and enabled me to tweak to my hearts content.

3- The 3rd piece of HDR software was the Nik HDR Exif Pro. This was faster than Adobe PS CS5, but a little slower than Photomatix - possibly because it seemed to be working in 16 bit and its finished product was a 16 bit sRGB file. As a result, the result looked a little hot on my monitor. I also noticed that it failed to pick up the color nuances that Photomatix displayed. I wasn't able to totally eliminate this, but I came close. The results were exciting and snappy - which might work excellent for some subjects. A special feature of this program was its use of control points. Each control point could be sized and tweaked as to brightness, contrast, etc. This was very impressive. Exif Pro is very user friendly and took little time to figure out. The preview was also in real-time. An excellent choice for those who like a little more snap in their HDR - again probably due to the sRGB color space.

4- The last choice was the HDR Photo Pro. I had read very little about this program, but boy was I surprised. A few pluses, but more minuses. For starters, the folder to browse your photos, simply showed thumbnails. No details. Yikes. So I tried for "details". No luck. To see the file details, you needed to click on it . . . and wait for it to open! Talk about a time waster! In short, this appears to be a major flaw. Yes, the program works. Yes it produces an expectable final product. And yes it goes to the bottom of the pile. Sorry.

 

My conclusion and ranking:

#1 - Photomatix Pro

#2 - HDR Exif Pro

#3 - PS CS5

#4 - HDR Photo Pro

Sample photo. Please note that I choose not to display the full image at 100% because I have had dozens of my internet photos stolen. Instead I have displayed a small 100% crop from my best result, the Photomax Pro. Please click on the image to see a larger version. I strongly suggest you do your own test. My favorite is Photomatix Pro. Please note, although these examples were originally aRGB, when converting them to web viewing they are now sRGB. They will, therefore, look a little more dynamic - some would say "unreal". Please click on image to enlarge.

      Photomatix test